New Delhi, April 17: Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar appears convinced Narendra Modi is in unstoppable surge as BJP spearhead for 2014 and has directed his war-room to prepare to go it alone. “The BJP leadership has known for a long time Narendra Modi is not acceptable to us, but it is clear his projection as prime ministerial candidate is nothing anybody in that party can prevent, even if they wish,” sources close to Nitish Kumar told The Telegraph today, “Both sides know this alliance is all but over.”
Nitish’s penny-drop moment on Modi’s inexorable march came during two private meetings he had over the weekend with BJP president Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley, a key architect of Bihar’s ruling alliance. Nitish is believed to have re-drawn the line on Narendra Modi with both leaders but received no assurance. On the contrary, he returned with the impression that Modi’s ascent was inevitable. Sources suggested he felt disappointed top BJP leaders — “even of the seniority of L.K. Advani, under whom we fought the last election” — have not stepped in to save the alliance. A key aide of Nitish Kumar, in fact, sardonically mocked senior BJP leaders saying, “It seems they have been rendered voiceless at the peak of their political careers, Modi is about to give them all a golden handshake and they are unable to pull their hands and play their own card.”
The changed mood of his BJP interlocutors was inescapable to Nitish. Barely months ago, when he had iterated his reservations on Modi to the then BJP chief, Nitin Gadkari, the Bihar chief minister had received an immediate assurance that a prime ministerial nominee would be picked in consultation with NDA constituents. No such offer, much less guarantee, was extended this time. “Nitishji got the clear sense that even those BJP leaders who want the alliance with JDU to survive are helpless, they are not in a position to argue against Modi, aksham hain, they are incapable,” the sources said.
The Bihar chief minister’s riposte to the BJP leaders’ silence on Modi was to leave them in no uncertainty he would go public with his “no-Modi” call, which he did with his extended Modi-bashing at the JDU national council last Sunday. “Nitishji had made his position clear to Arun Jaitley when they met on the evening before his speech,” sources said, “BJP leaders knew the blast was coming.”
Nitish’s no-holds-barred attack on Modi triggered acrimonious exchanges down the line between allies. The BJP’s newly-named spokesperson, Meenakshi Lekhi, declared her party would “not tolerate” any criticism of Modi; in Patna, BJP office bearers have begun to dare the JDU saying they are prepared to fight all of Bihar’s Lok Sabha seats alone. The new state BJP boss Mangal Pandey, among others, felt free to needle Nitish Kumar personally, earning angered retort. “Let the BJP not lose sight of the fact that they cannot form a government without us,” JDU spokesman Shivanand Tiwary countered, “Our opposition to Narendra Modi is nothing new, if they cannot understand or accommodate our strong and stated reservations it is for the BJP to ponder the future.” Neither side is promising their rhetoric will not turn more acrimonious.
Mere brinkmanship, or a dare that could put to death the most durable political alliance of contemporary times? Ideally, Nitish would still have the alliance intact; it has endured more than 15 years, half of that period in power. Together, the BJP and the JDU have crafted a winner socio-political alliance of upper castes, extremely backwards, Dalits and sections of Muslims. Sundering the alliance will mean tough rebuilding, especially for Nitish as he will bear the burden not merely of retaining power but also of his upper hand in Bihar politics.
It is fair to speculate that the Bihar chief minister continues to play on advocates of the alliance in the BJP — a set that may be co-terminus with the section opposed to Narendra Modi’s candidacy — to outmanoeuvre the Gujarat chief minister’s national ambitions. Nitish’s loud espousal of the Atal Behari Vajpayee mould is clearly aimed at nudging other BJP seniors to step up to the forefront and outflank Modi.
But Nitish’s recent feedback from within the BJP has spoken of an “overwhelming tilt of momentum” in favour of his Gujarati bete noire. One Bihar BJP leader considered close to Nitish is believed to have indirectly conveyed to the chief minister that he was powerless to cut the drift towards a bitter parting. “The mood of party workers and cadres is such that they are prepared to lynch you for arguing against Modi,” he is believed to have told an interlocutor, “That is the reason even senior party leaders, even those who might have nursed prime ministerial ambitions of their own, are silent.”
Nitish, his war-room indicates, finds himself under no such obligation; his tone, they promise, will only turn shriller as Modi hot-foots it to centrestage. “Don’t be under any illusions on this one,” said a political aide, “In his head, Nitish has already called this alliance dead, he is thinking what after.”